‘Archive’ is both a commonly used noun and an uncertain black hole into which many promising artistic endeavours risk vanishing, lost in a whirl of indecisive editing and overbearing nostalgia. Undeterred by this, Mark Leckey and his gallerist Martin McGeown (director of Cabinet) recently tackled the Milton Keynes Gallery archive, using it as the basis for a survey of the ten-year-old institution’s programme and a series of new and co-authored works.
A notable absence of vitrines and undigested archival material provided the first welcome surprise; ‘Life and Times of Milton Keynes Gallery’ was clearly servicing Leckey’s interests rather than straightforwardly celebrating an anniversary. MK-G was imagined throughout as a machine-like being, generating and projecting its desires and fantasies as well as recapitulating its career and context within the new town through narrative video, specially commissioned Viz cartoons, sculpture and a slideshow. Untitled (2010), is a bright pink scale-model of the gallery filmed against a green screen as it sits on a rotating plinth. On the adjoining wall its slowly spinning image was projected live over a slideshow, plans of Utopian buildings by artists, architects and urbanists including Hermann Finsterlin, A.R. Penck and Paul Virilio – a collective representation of the gallery’s fantasies. As if in therapy, revealing what might have been at the centre of this Utopian new town, the bittersweet projections of this innocuous utilitarian building continue on a loop and contextualize it within the grander scheme or urban grid.
Vache Concrete (Concrete Cow, 2010) was the exhibition’s centre-piece, a video that combines images of the gallery and its ‘host city’ with a collaged script of phrases and quotations from the archive, voiced by a male automaton programmed by the artist. ‘MK-G, Y2K, the new millennium fast approaches but this only marks a moment. The stream of life continues …’ Brought together like this, the work is decidedly un-nostalgic, the robot’s sci-fi tones and occasional faults locate absurdist humour in the assorted installation shots, reducing their subject matter to matter, or ‘stuff’. What surfaces are musings on museology, the practice of display, categorization and – of course – archiving. A section on the late Sigmar Polke (who showed here in 1999) is accompanied by the observation that titles, ‘like tropical twining plants, extend linguistic tendrils towards the pictures, now handing out obvious rhetorical advice, now addressing the viewer directly.’ In a series of installation shots from the same year, the narrator seems to crash – ‘2004, lalalalala ...’ – splashing the order of things with a glorious dollop of the absurd. The work’s title refers to René Magritte’s late-1940s ‘vache’ or cow period, where the late artist explored the plasticity of painting – an aesthetic and methodology to which Leckey apparently aspired while editing this video, wishing ‘to make all the works malleable and plastic’. But there is no exquisite-corpse methodology here – the message is highly meditated: this exhibition is part of a continuum and, just as it reduces art to stuff, it too will be reduced to stuff over time.
As a collaborative enterprise between Leckey and McGeown, the division of their labour remained unclear – perhaps testament to the latter’s long-time support of the artist. Some of Leckey’s older works are, however, recognizable in the new: models of MK-G were dotted like Daleks throughout the exhibition, resembling the army of public sculptures featured in The March of the Big White Barbarians (2005). Elsewhere, a CGI simulation of the gallery’s empty interior played, employing a similar mode of self-reflection first evident in his Made in ’Eaven (2004). But most significant perhaps, is where this project will sit in Leckey’s own evolution, shifting him away from his increasingly academic practice – marked by his recent lecture series ‘In the Long Tail’ (2009) – more squarely back into the mode of making. Projection is as important an exercise as retrospection – as the narrator of Vache Concrete concludes: ‘Within every person there lies the transformer and the initiation of transformations is essential to each individual.’ What risked being an exercise in self-congratulation manifested here as an inspired invitation and a project of genuine worth.